Preview: Roughriders vs. Cougars Round 2

By: 
JAKE DOWLING
Sports Editor

It is not too often that two teams see each other twice in one season. In St. Marys’ history, it has happened just two other teams — both ending in losses against Bath (1985) and Sidney (1989).

But Saturday’s Division IV, Region 14 semifinal will offer that rare phenomenon.

Fifth-ranked and second-seeded St. Marys (10-1) defeated Van Wert (9-2) 38-6 in a week three matchup and the Cougars’ are in the Riders’ way for a chance to reach a regional final twice in the last three years.

“I think the uniqueness from both sides is that our prep time has changed a great deal because we are so familiar with each other,” Roughriders coach Doug Frye said. “It’s like not you are going and finding a team who you have never seen before, so that is a good thing and a bad thing. 

“We will have to make our adjustments.”

How is this rematch even possible? Simple, the Cougars have played well this season.

Making their first postseason appearance since 2000, the Cougars’ last loss came to, ironically, St. Marys, and since then, Van Wert will head into Lima Senior’s Spartan Stadium on an eight-game win streak.

The last time the Cougars were in the postseason, they lost to Canton Central Catholic in the Division III state final, 27-26, in double overtime.

“They have improved immensely,” Frye said. “Coach (Keith) Recker and his staff have done an exceptional job and it is a great year for them.”

Frye believed an overtime win against Ottawa-Glandorf turned Van Wert’s season around and he’s not wrong. 

The Cougars opened the season facing what would be three playoff teams right out of the gate in Bryan (34-7, win), Wapakoneta (42-12, loss) and St. Marys (38-6 loss) and blew a 34-18 lead in the fourth quarter in their game against the Titans in week four. Tied at 34-34 heading into overtime, the Cougars were staring 1-3 overall and 0-3 in the league in the face, but a Jake Hilleary 2-yard TD run gave Van Wert its 40-34 victory.

Since that win, Van Wert has allowed no more than 33 points in a game — recording two shutouts — and have outscored opponents 292-84.

When asked if the tough early-season schedule helped Van Wert get to this point, Frye thought that was the case.

“I thought they improved because of that,” he said. “The O-G game was a big game for them when they pulled it out in the end of the ballgame, it seems like game three was seasons ago.”

Indeed. 

Van Wert was outscored 92-121 in the first four games, 52-87 after the first three games, ranked sixth in the league in total offense, second-to-last in scoring offense and quarterback Nate Place was averaging 87.8 rushing yards per game with three touchdowns and two interceptions as a passer.

Fast forward to week 12 and the Cougars are a much different team statistically.

The Cougars finished with the Western Buckeye League’s second-best offense in terms of yards (413.5 yards per game) and scoring (35.1 points per game) as well as third in passing offense at 229.4 ypg.

Defense also improved, ending the league season with the top rushing attack at 111.2 yards per game — three yards better than St. Marys and third in total defense (262.6 ypg) and scoring defense (19.4 ppg).

Place was the third-best passer in the league with 1,361 yards on 127-of-190 passing, 11 touchdowns and just three interceptions. Also interesting, the senior led the league in rushing with 1,319 yards and 21 scores to go along with his league-best 131.9 rushing yards per game.

So entering Saturday, the Roughriders — at least on paper — will be facing a much different Van Wert team than they did on the road in week three.

“They seem like a similar team to what they were in week three,” Frye said. “They have probably been running their quarterback more than they have in the past and they have changed their personnel on defense even though some of those personnel adjustments were because they played us.

“I don’t believe either team has changed too dramatically.”

The lone hiccup in Van Wert’s success is its schedule.

After the tough three-game stretch to begin the season (opponents finished with a combined 27-5 record), all but two teams finished with a losing record and had a combined 33-48 mark.

Only Celina finished ahead of Van Wert in rushing and every team left on the schedule finished below Van Wert in every defensive category — except passing.

One question is, how physical is Van Wert’s rush defense?

The Cougars did give St. Marys some issues in their first meeting. Van Wert forced two punts and a turnover on downs on the Riders’ first three drives before St. Marys took to the air, scoring drives of 48 and 32 yards to take a 14-6 lead and eventually shutting out the Cougars from there. 

For what its worth, Van Wert’s pass defense is the second-worst in the WBL (151.4 ypg) and despite being, statistically, one of the worst passing teams in the league — because St. Marys does not pass — the Roughriders have been effective through the air this season when they need to turn to it.

Field position and turnovers also played a factor in that game with St. Marys’ average drive start at 48.8 yard line compared to Van Wert’s 27 yard line and four turnovers.

The winner will play in a regional final next Saturday against the winner of top-seeded Bellville Clear Fork and fourth-seeded Lorain Clearview.

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